Building Healthy Neighborhoods

Bob Oaks for the North-Missoula Community Development Corporation

“All those things for which we have no words are lost.  The mind – the culture – has two little tools, grammar and lexicon: a decorated sand bucket and a matching shovel.  With these we bluster about the continents and do all the world’s work.  With these we try and save our very lives.”

Annie Dillard – from “Total Eclipse” in Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper and Row, 1982.

In Missoula, at the North-Missoula Community Development Corporation we are trying to “think outside the box”– or outside of our sand box, if we listen to Annie Dillard.  A lot of us in the community development field bat about the term “holistic.”  But trying to think and act holistically can be surprisingly difficult (grammar- and lexicon-limited as we are).  And, sometimes, with a few notable exceptions, it can be especially hard to explain this broad view to “experts” – the specialists who bluster about our communities doing the work of community investment, development and administration.  Sadly, we sometimes even find it difficult to explain our perspective to the organizations whose business it is to fund and promote the good work of community building.  They don’t usually say so, but we fear they may see us as being “all over the board.”

We do condition our viewpoint, however, on some very reputable antecedents.  Since the 1950’s, instead of searching for remedies to neighborhood blight only after it reared its ugly head, a small group of healthy community practitioners concentrated on making communities socially invested and well.  Healthy community pioneers, like Leonard Duhl and John McKnight, often turned to ecologists to understand how members of complex communities interrelate successfully.  They also turned to the historic model of the public health practitioners who, for years, seemed to understand best, the salutary ramifications of social investments – “you get what you pay for, and paying up front is usually a lot cheaper and more humane than paying over time.”

Because it can be so elusive, this big picture perspective cannot be over emphasized.   It is too easy to slip back into the flawed ethos of seeing communities in fragmented ways – the trees instead of the forest – our words limiting our ideas.  Our professional lexicon, our educational disciplines and the specialists they produce, compartmentalize our social thinking.  Housing; economic development; health; recreation; transportation; nutrition; education; are some of the isolates of our social thinking.  Many of us bemoan “degradation of the environment” or “loss of community” along with “the break down of the family” as causes of social malaise.  We forget that humans must naturally interrelate (with each other and with our environment).  And we do so, either functionally or dysfunctionally, not in textbooks or in commission reports, but on the ground, in our homes and in our neighborhoods.  A healthy social dynamic seeks mutual compatibility and fulfillment – the same way that water seeks its own level.

Ignoring how interrelationships happen in, and over, time doesn’t make these interdependencies go away.  Mistaking symptoms for causes doesn’t help us invest our resources wisely.  It’s sounder to invest in education than prisons, in pre-natal care than disability services, in job retention rather than welfare relief, in neighborhoods rather than bureaucracies, in people rather than services.  In our community development corporation we feel the most comfortable approach to holism is to apply an ecological approach to neighborhood.  We think investments promoting livable neighborhoods build community and reinforce families.

There are highly trained sets of experts who function in the classic arenas of community development, all of which have a distinct subset of problems that need to be addressed in order to help “the poor” access housing, jobs, nutrition, health services, education, recreation and transportation.  In the 1960’s, in the aftermath of urban renewal programs, among the many reported horrors of urban race riots, were stories about high-rise-public-housing residents who shot at the firefighters come to put out the blazes set by the neighbors themselves.  Often these snipers positioned themselves on the roofs of their subsidized housing, the human warehouses that served neighbors and neighborhoods dysfunctionally.  There are community development corporations in big cities all over the country that are trying to rebuild neighborhoods on the sites of these urban disasters.  They are trying to create places not only to house people but where those same people can work and play, shop, be schooled, and socialize.

Today, in some communities, there are economic development initiatives and job creation programs that have subsidized polluting industries.  A medical response to mounting air shed pollution is likely to be the recruitment of more pulmonary specialists.  Product-centered educational administrators who believe that their only business is economically efficient educational supply, can embrace the seductions in the economies of scale and centralization  — closing neighborhood schools, while ignoring that small schools and the stability of neighborhoods play a central role in childhood well-being.  Transportation experts are often more concerned with moving large volumes of vehicles than with the social and environmental impacts of big new roads.  They can destroy neighborhoods rather than connect them.

The NMCDC has a philosophical perspective that residents are the primary “experts” on neighborhood affairs.  The organization takes its strategic planning directives from Missoula’s Joint Northside/Westside Neighborhood Plan.  This plan is a citizen initiated and government funded effort.  Our neighborhood began the planning process in 1996 and revisited it in 2006.  In its original crafting, there were more than 45 heavily publicized community meetings.  Ratified in the summer of 2000 by the Missoula City Council, the plan’s over-riding vision is the desire of neighborhood residents to “perpetuate, re-create and further promote their historic neighborhoods’ development as a community for working class Missoulians.”  Neighbors want to “improve opportunities for access to economic security, affordable housing, safe transportation, necessary human services, recreational facilities, open space, and meaningful social interaction for people of all ages and abilities.”  In 2006, the NMCDC promoted and helped fund a citizen review of the neighborhood plan to help residents analyze the neighborhoods’ changes over the last ten years.

This is in keeping with the agreement among the original citizen planners that, “…the collective experiences of the people who live and work in the neighborhoods provide the best source for identifying neighborhood strengths and crafting strategies for meeting neighborhood goals.”   The extensive public involvement in the creation of the comprehensive neighborhood plan taught valuable lessons to the NMCDC’s staff and board of directors.  Our Land Stewardship Program for affordable home ownership (a community land trust), the Hill and Homestead Preservation Coalition for open space, historic preservation, traditional agriculture demonstration and recreational trail connection, the start-up Missoula Community Co-op (for local and fresh foods) and the Missoula Outdoor Cinema are all grass roots initiated projects that came to life through the organization’s availability as an opportunity center.  We have also been able to play midwife for other start-up nonprofits including the Missoula Clay Studio, Missoula Home Resource (a center for recycling building materials), and Missoula’s Bike Walk Alliance (BWAM). The neighborhood is still concerned about the White Pine Sash, State Superfund cleanup site, and the NMCDC continues to advocate for the best possible remediation there.

When residents — those, we think, who are “planning to stay” — were asked,  “What makes a good neighborhood?”  They speak most often of safe streets, easy neighborhood transportation access, conversations over back fences, front porches that face sidewalks, shade trees, bike and walking paths and public art.  They talk about family stability and equate that with decent-paying jobs and housing they can afford.  They speak of neighbors sharing responsibilities and watching over the neighborhood’s kids.  People want public gathering places and community gardens.  They want safe places for kids to play.  They want meaningful ways to become involved.  They want to feel that there will be a caring community to embrace them when they are old.

If we look outside the pigeonholes of the box that makes up a conventional model of community health, we find a vindication for the wisdom of neighbors.  In a 1997 report, “America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being,” some unsurprising conclusions were that children who are poor are more likely to have difficulty in school, become teen parents, and as adults, earn less and be unemployed more often.  A major key indicator for children’s good health is secure parental employment and adequate, un-crowded and affordable housing.  The study reported that, nationwide, between 1978 and 1993, the percentage of households-with-children paying more than 30 percent of their gross incomes on housing costs rose from 15 percent to 27 percent and that, “Paying 30 percent or more of family income may leave insufficient resources for other family needs.” We also know that high resident transiency and low home ownership can have deleterious community consequences in terms of crime, disinvestment and public apathy.

A survey on Missoula’s North and Westside facilitated by the NMCDC and funded and compiled by the Missoula Office of Planning and Grants (OPG) in 1997, showed that two-thirds of the sampled residents had lived in their neighborhood for less than five years, and over one-third planned to move within five years.  In 1997 half of the surveyed neighbors stated they would prefer living in some other neighborhood. Twenty percent of the sampled households included at least one member who was unemployed and looking for work. Burdensome housing costs were one of the neighborhoods’ most serious problems. In 1997, 67 percent of the sampled neighborhood households reported that they spent more than 30 percent of their gross incomes on housing.

More current information, gathered from a 2006 OPG survey, associated with the Neighborhood Plan review, indicates that residents’ attitudes are beginning to change.  Respondents to this survey indicated that people are generally less transient and happier than they were ten years before.  In 2006 the number of respondents with more than six years tenure had increased to from 40 to 60 percent.  When asked where they would most like to live, 55 percent of the respondents answered “in my neighborhood” (cf., 49 percent in 1997).

Almost half of the 2006 survey respondents report speaking to neighbors daily, regularly sharing in social activities, and helping one another in yard work and home repair projects.  When asked to describe how they think the neighborhood has improved in the last five years, the majority of survey residents mentioned their appreciation for the repair and renovation of the neighborhoods’ older housing stock – often undertaken by the new homeowners and young families.  People also mentioned improved sidewalk and playground facilities, and a general sense that the neighborhood is being “cleaned up.” Housing costs remain an onerous burden with 63 percent of the respondents in 2006 reporting rent or mortgage payments exhausting more than 30 percent of their gross incomes (cf., 67 percent in 1997).  This is in spite of the fact that 7 percent fewer responding households identified themselves as having members unemployed and looking for work.

A 1995 “Blue Ribbon Commission” On Human Services in Missoula identified unstable shelter as one of the highest risk factors influencing all of the age groups they studied.  Close to half of the student body of our neighborhood elementary school turns over every year as the families come and go.  In his 1989 study, The Same Client: The Demographics of Education and Service Delivery Systems, Harold Hodgkinson says, “…like preventive medicine, [social strategies] could be based on limiting the area in which potential poverty families are most vulnerable – housing.  A range of programs need to be developed to accomplish this goal – to keep working families out of poverty in the first place.  Housing is the most important area of vulnerability.  If low-income children were living in economically and socially secure housing with some rent protection, there is little doubt that most of them could stay out of poverty and in school, while their parent(s) could stay on the job and off welfare.  We are just beginning to understand the effects of housing on many other areas of life, including education, health, crime, etc.  The costs of housing innovations would be a small drop in the bucket, compared to the benefits of having more kids staying in school to become taxpaying job holders!”

In the early 1980’s data collected in New York City indicated that the rate of pediatric severe injury and death for central Harlem children was 1,141 out of 100,000 in the population.  After the establishment and intervention of the Harlem Hospital Injury Prevention Program (HHIPP) this number, by 1998, had fallen to 518 out of 100,000 in the population.  The program involved the rehabilitation of virtually every playground in Central Harlem, the development of new parks programs and neighborhood policing to rescue playgrounds from gangs and drug dealers.

The HHIPP also conducted bicycle safety projects, gardening projects in several Harlem schools and art education in a hospital-site studio.  The program created a “Unity With Murals” project and founded the Harlem Hospital Dance Clinic.  A group of parents working with HHIPP enlisted local business help to establish a Central Harlem Little League.  Needless to say, this enormously successful approach was not a traditional medical response to inner city pediatric trauma problems – nor was it a normal bureaucratic response.  It was, however, a very successful example of holistic, grass roots thinking in action.

As long as we are able, the NMCDC plans on trying to see a social “big picture” within the context of our own neighborhood setting.  We want to make a better neighborhood, one in which families want to put down roots.  We want to create opportunities for people of modest means to do that.  Ours is an experiment based on interrelationships.  We feel we must be about housing but need to, even more, find a way to be about more than just housing, or mitigation of poverty, or recreation, or parks and infrastructure development or historic or open space preservation or access to sound nutrition(as important as they all, individually, are).  We want to be about all these and more.  We want to encourage the synergies that healthy relationships generate.  We want to see our neighborhoods revitalized as good homes for all of us.